Nicola Cassidy, author of December Girl, reflects on the research that led her to write her debut set in the Boyne Valley, in a week that saw the famous site make headlines all over the world
How do you find the book you want to write? How do you go about grabbing a story by the neck and saying, here, I’ll have you, in my head for years, filling my thoughts and waking dreams, taking up my notebooks, my word documents, my chapter files? You are the one; you… are my book.
Once I’d made the decision to write, a decision borne from a gradual increase in my blogging and short story output, I had to go out and find a story. I had a setting and I had a genre; it had taken me years to even get that far. But I didn’t have a story, a tale to tell; I didn’t even have a character in mind.
And so I set about researching. I hit up the library, borrowing every single book they had on my home town of Drogheda, Co. Louth, reading all I could about what life was like here in the 19th century.
I read books that didn’t even interest me, long passages about old athletic clubs and fishing, books about churches and meandering laneways. Every museum I visited I took home a book, one of those rare kinds only on sale in museums.
And gradually, with all my note taking, a story and characters began to form. The backdrop pieced together. And the idea nestled.
I read about an eviction that took place in 1880 at Dowth, Co. Meath, a few miles outside Drogheda and right in the centre of the Boyne Valley, famed for its megalithic tombs. The man, Thomas Elcock, died shortly after being evicted from his land, where the trust claimed he had taken stones from the ancient tombs and used them illegally in his buildings.
The story niggled at me. The setting, the place, the stones.
What if the man had a family? What if they’d all been thrown to the side of the road, what would have happened them? And what if there was a spirit to those stones, a connection to the people who dragged them there in honour of the sun five thousand years ago?
I tracked down the author of the original essay, a man called Gareth Yore who had practically forgotten the piece he had written for his thesis many years ago. We met and walked the land where the story took place, viewed the field where the evicted house stood, looked over broken grave stones where Thomas Elcock now lay.
Every step I took helped in writing my story. Being there, breathing the same air, looking at the hills and valleys and standing atop of the ancient mound and tomb fed the emotions I needed to make my story work.
The setting became the theme of my novel, the book, an ode to my home.
Dowth’s neighbour, Newgrange, attracts a quarter of a million visitors every year, all keen to take a look at what our ancestors were up to, back before the pyramids were even roped into place.
And I had never heard of a novel set there.
During my research events came up that had a major impact on scenes in my book. An open day at Dowth Hall let me inside the house that has been closed to the public forever. Dowth Point to Point was resurrected, a cross country horse race that would have been the pinnacle of the social calendar in these parts one hundred years ago.
I went back and edited the first draft, having experienced these events, changing the story to make it more authentic.
I can’t help but get excited whenever I learn anything new about the area, or like this week, see coverage of the sites across social and broadcast media.
Drought conditions led to the appearance of a previously undiscovered henge near to Dowth and archaeologists announced they had dug up a new tomb, right at Dowth Hall, with new stones and artwork to rival Newgrange itself.
It is the land that keeps giving.
I am so glad I managed to write the book that slipped into my soul. I am proud to have captured even a tiny sense of the people that made this place so special, so spiritualistic.
Last year, a reviewer noted that parts of December Girl, particularly the parts touching on the reimagining of the stone age people who built these tombs, seemed to be more important to the writer – me – than to the story itself.
The reviewer wasn’t wrong. Perhaps it was a mark of my debut-ness, my decision to write about something I couldn’t explain, a spirit.
You see the book became so much more than a first novel to me. It was my own marking in stone, my own etchings and homage to the place itself.
I still visit. I feel like I enter a new world when I go there, a little piece of land cut off from everywhere else.
They say your first book is all about you and you need to write it to get it out of your system. I don’t think the book is about me, but it is about the place I am from. And maybe there’s no getting away from it. We are made and formed from our history and culture. We can’t help but reflect what we see around us.
I feel very lucky to be born to a place as giving as this.
(c) Nicola Cassidy
About December Girl:
Molly Thomas is a feisty, independent soul, born on the Winter Solstice. As a young woman her family are evicted from their home at Christmas. Molly swears vengeance on the jealous neighbour and land agent responsible, Flann Montgomery. Then in 1896 her baby son is taken from his pram. Molly searches the streets for Oliver and the police are called but her baby is gone. Why does trouble seem to follow Molly? And will she ever find out what happened to her child? December Girl is a tale of family bond, love, revenge and murder.
“A beautifully written, highly plotted debut, with loads of historical detail.”
Sue Leonard, Irish Examiner
“One of the best debuts I have ever read.”
Linda at Books of All Kinds
“It’s a much more complex read than I was expecting, and what started out as a historical mystery quickly turned into something much more sinister and intense.”
Rachael at Confessions of a Book Geek
“A pleasure to read, even if it broke my heart.”
Trish at Between My Lines
“An incredible debut”
Mairead at Swirl and Thread
Order your copy online here.